The Battle Over Robert E. Lee Biscuits and Gravy at Omaha’s 11-Worth Cafe

In 1979, the year the diner first opened, the city was less than a decade removed from riots that followed the killing of Vivian Strong. She was practicing dance moves with her friends as the police arrived to investigate a suspected robbery; a white officer fatally shot Ms. Strong, who was Black, in the back of the head. She was 14.

Now, during the unrest of 2020, the Caniglias were closing up. In a letter posted online, the Caniglias said family members had been threatened on social media and at their homes.

“The verbal abuse, taunting and having to be escorted to and from their cars by police and security officers for their safety for two straight days was more than we could watch them endure,” it read.

The family has said it has no plans to reopen the diner. Christine Duncan, the owner’s daughter who managed the restaurant for 22 years, when reached over Facebook Messenger responded angrily about the Black Lives Matter movement and said: “Screw them protesters! That’s all I have to say!”

Some Omahans criticized the dispute as another example of so-called cancel culture going too far.

“The attitude of if you don’t agree with me I’m going to do all I can to take you down is unproductive and it’s un-American,” said Brinker Harding, a City Council member who was an alternate delegate for this summer’s Republican convention.

For others, the debate was the end of a longer, more quiet protest.

JaKeen Fox, a community activist in Omaha, said he had refused on principle to go to the 11-Worth Cafe for years, ever since he heard Robert E. Lee’s name was on the menu.

“To reduce the demonstration to a conversation around a menu item is a flaw,” he said. “But even if it was just about a menu item that’s important, too, because it shows how you welcome Black and brown people in society.”

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